More Cowbell

I look tired? Well, I  did  just record  Blonde on Blonde ...

I look tired? Well, I did just record Blonde on Blonde...

Have you ever heard The Troggs Tape? The Troggs Tape is one of those celebrities-at-their-worst artifacts, capturing an unproductive recording session by The Troggs, the British group who gave us "Wild Thing" and "Love Is All Around." The track they are trying to create was eventually released as "Tranquility"--an irony, as most of the tape is the band members arguing. Very little music is actually made, though after a while the accumulated repetition of "fuck," "fucking" and "fucking fuck off you fucking wanker" does attain a certain kind of melodic brilliance. If this sounds like a description of a scene from Spinal Tap, that's because the Troggs Tape was one of the prime inspirations for the fake British heavy metal trio. Echoes of the Troggs Tape can be found in just about every depiction of rock star ass-hattery that has followed, from VH1's Behind The Music to SNL's famous "More Cowbell" sketch with Christopher Walken.

The Bootleg Tapes, Vol,. 12: The Cutting Edge, 1965-66 brings to light another famous recording session--or rather a series of sessions that took place between January '65 and March '66, in which Bob Dylan created what many regard as the greatest work of his career, the albums Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde On Blonde. The banter preserved here is often quite funny, though it never reaches Troggs Tape levels of ridiculousness.  But I was delighted to hear, during an early rehearsal for "Visions of Johanna," producer Bob Johnston stop the take and cut in with an instruction to the drummer: "More cowbell."

This retroactively meta moment comes on Disc 9 of the special Deluxe Collector's Edition of The Cutting Edge.  Including everything Dylan recorded during this period, this 18-CD monster has 379 tracks. That's far more than last year's "The Complete Basement Tapes," though far fewer songs are attempted: there are a lot of takes of "Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?" and "Leopard Skin Pillbox Hat" to wade through. It's amazing that Dylan devoted so much energy to such minor songs, but that's how these sessions went. Even some of the more sure-footed offers took a while.  There are about fifteen versions of "Visions of Johanna," for instance. Though the final record sounds like it  emerged in a burst of easy brilliance, it had to be attacked over and over until Dylan was satisfied.

Unlike The Beatles, who were even then starting to construct their final records from multiple versions and overdubs, Dylan kept doing take after take until he got one he liked. In most cases, that live-in-studio performance became the final record. As anyone who has seen Dylan in concert over the last 50 years knows, he doesn't consider the released versions at all definitive. These are the songs that define him, yet he continues to tinker with the arrangements and phrasing, even going so far as to write new melody lines on occasion. The Cutting Edge shows that this is not something he started doing mid-career: it was his method from the start. Unlike The Troggs, fruitlessly arguing about how to make a mediocre song come alive, Dylan kept banging away at his good songs, until, by dint of sheer perseverance, they became masterpieces.